Suggestions for Invented Pronouns to Replace a Generic “He”

Generic Pronouns Pic

In nonfiction, it would often be convenient for the English language to have a standard, gender-neutral alternative to a generic “he,” “him,” or “himself.”

The point doesn’t arise as often in fiction. If you’re referring to a specific character, then, well, as the author, you ought to know the gender of your character. The issue does come up occasionally in fiction, though.

Back to nonfiction, we often write things like “he or she” or, more compactly, “he/she.” Some readers don’t like the use of the slash—which becomes really interesting when you want to write “and/or” without using the slash. (There are times in nonfiction where you want to make a statement where either the “and” or the “or” may apply specifically to the reader—and since it will be “and” for some readers, but “or” for others, the author must allow for both possibilities.)

One alternative that has been in use for hundreds of years is to use “he” to imply “he or she.” This seems to favor masculinity.

There are authors who do the opposite, using a generic “she.” Why not? It seems fair to me. She would be a fool to disagree, even if she is a he. 🙂

A few authors have taken this a step further, alternating between he and she (either every other pronoun or every other paragraph). However, this can get confusing, especially if some uses of “he” or “she” are actually gender specific.

Did you know that some pronouns have actually been invented for just this purpose? (The idea has been around for at least a hundred years.) Here is a sample:

  • Use an apostrophe. For example, ‘e is “he” or “she,” h’ is “him” or “her,” ‘s is “his” or “hers,” and ‘self is “himself” or “herself.”
  • Add a ‘z.’ For example, “zhe,” “zher,” or “zhim.” One problem with this is that there are some variations among the authors that employ this system (e.g. an ‘m’ may be used for one of the pronouns instead of a ‘z’).
  • Change the vowel to a ‘u.’ For example, “hu,” “hus,” “hum,” and “humself.” This system left everything masculine, but just changed the vowel, which doesn’t quite resolve the problem.

Unfortunately, none have been in practice frequently enough to become adopted as a standard. (At least, not yet.)

You can see a main hurdle—or, rather, you can hear it—if you imagine trying to speak conversationally with someone using the pronouns above. Would you like to pronounce those z’s? Would you sound funny with those u’s? Imagine other people’s surprise if you suddenly spring those pronouns on them mid-sentence.

Another hurdle has been from the editors and publishers. Prior to print-on-demand, the only way for such gender-neutral pronouns to make a large-scale impact in print was for major publishers (not necessarily books—newspapers would have worked just as well) to adopt them. It would have been a huge risk to take, with perhaps a high probability for failure. And even if they had done this on a wide scale, lack of adoption in everyday conversation would still have been a major roadblock.

Why would you need these pronouns in everyday conversation? You don’t have to be formal when conversing with acquaintances, so the use of “they” or “their” will work just fine for “he or she” or “his or her.” Even informal writing often adopts “they” and “their” as the solution to this problem.

The modern publishing concepts of print-on-demand and e-books lend authors the freedom to adopt such pronouns, but, again, it’s a large risk to take. For most books, the audience isn’t likely to be receptive to the use of such pronouns.

If a few big authors bravely decided to adopt them, perhaps that would have a big impact. The small author might find too much risk and not enough reward, except maybe for a rare niche audience.

Gender-neutral pronouns seem to be academically fascinating, but don’t seem likely at this point to take off. Language can change significantly in the long-term, though. So who knows?

Are we like black-and-white television? Will children in the 22nd century say things like, “Can you believe they used ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she’ back then?”

Further Reading

1. Wikipedia:

2. A WordPress blog for this:

3. An editorial:

4. Wiktionary (rather comprehensive list):

5. Huffington Post (Swedish “hen”):

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Just a Moment

It’s only one moment. What can it matter?

  • All too often, it’s long enough to disrupt the perfect opportunity for a first kiss.
  • In a race, it can make the difference between a gold medal and last place.
  • It’s just enough time to lose that great idea.
  • One moment can determine whether the game-tying shot lands in the basket just in the nick of time or too late.
  • “Excuse me. Can you please spare a moment,” is long enough for an unexpected sales pitch to cost you a good deal of cash.
  • You might wait for it all of your life, while you pass millions of others by.
  • For light, it may make a difference of a million miles.
  • When you’re bored out of your mind, it becomes incredibly long.
  • But when you’re having the time of your life, it’s gone before you know it.
  • That’s all it takes to lose your temper.
  • On the way to the emergency room, it can make the difference between life and death.
  • In an apocalyptic novel, it will save the entire planet and all of civilization.
  • A moment could be that critical stage between too soon and too late.
  • It’s short enough to forget, yet long enough to savor.

A moment. So short. Yet sometimes so long.

Some of those moments are the most precious of our lives.

The Power of an Inch

Inch Pic

What could you do with one inch?

  • Live another forty years because the bullet just missed your heart.
  • Turn a very long foul ball into a homerun.
  • Squeeze into an old pair of jeans.
  • Score a hole-in-one instead of lipping out.
  • Get your tongue to touch your nose.
  • Make the difference between a tennis ace and a double fault.
  • Scratch an itch on your back that’s just beyond reach.
  • Be just tall enough to block the basketball so it doesn’t fall in for a three-pointer.
  • Store terabytes of information by manipulating trillions of electrons.
  • End the inning with a strikeout instead of giving up a bases-loaded walk.
  • Deliver the mail and shut the gate just before a dog snaps its jaws around your ankle.
  • Edge out a competing horse in a photo finish.
  • Go on the roller coaster with the big kids, instead of crying and watching from the outside.
  • Have your golf ball stay in bounds instead of needing to walk back to the teebox.
  • Entice someone to ask for a whole mile.

An inch. So tiny. Yet sometimes so big.

You can’t walk a mile without first walking an inch.

The Author’s Mighty Pen: The Power of Writing

Mighty Author Pic

Behold an example of the power of words:

This sentence commands you to read it.

Once you read it, there’s no use denying it. You can’t get any sort of acknowledgment that you didn’t read it.

Words are mighty.

The writer is a creator, of sorts. Creating a brand new world. Perhaps, intending a better world. Or maybe a scarier world. But the author may also create a vision of the real world.

Through words, authors have the power to:

  • evoke strong emotions from readers (crying, laughter, pity).
  • make people read fast (suspenseful page turner).
  • provoke action (letters to Congress, a call to arms, buy a DVD that’s on sale).
  • teach (textbooks, how-to guides, training manuals).
  • report news (headlines, articles, research).
  • create ideals (socialism, non-violence, freedom).
  • entertain (fiction, puzzles, cookbooks).
  • inspire (biography, motivational, children’s social situations).
  • provide leadership (by example, through characters in stories).
  • record history (textbooks, biographies, memoirs).
  • and much, much more can come just by stringing words together in the right fashion.

Just like Peter Parker, writers have a great responsibility with this power. 🙂 (I’ll just let you think about this, and spare you a lecture on it.)

But we know from everyday experience that it’s not just the words that matter:

In person, it’s often not what you say, but how you say it.

Facial expressions, gestures, tone, and context influence interpretation. This is a challenge for the author.

Well, we can add a few features, if we want. But the same effect can often be conveyed just as effectively, if not more so, with ‘naked’ words.

A sentence printed on a sheet of paper can be interpreted many ways. It can be read with different tones, stress can be placed on different syllables, and accents can vary.

When the same sentence is said aloud a certain way, this aids with interpretation.

Authors can leave expressions open to interpretation, or they can use additional words to help elicit a particular emotion, or they can allow context to help. They can tell the reader, or they can use words to show the reader.

They can add utterly useless words. Yet each and every word serves a purpose.

They can create new phrases. Yet even trite expressions can be used effectively.

A painting may be worth a thousand words. But the writer is an artist, too, and can paint a vivid picture just using words.


You can eat without them. You can sleep without them. You can find shelter without them. You can find comfort without them. You can make friends without them. You can reproduce without them.

If we had to, we could live without words. But could you imagine such a life?

Once you learn to read, words affect you the rest of your life. If you see a sign, you must make a concerted effort not to read it. Words have such power over us. They influence our emotions, our actions.

And we use them. They give us power.

Imagine trying to do everything you’ve done in your life without them.

Go an entire day without words. Don’t say one. Don’t write one. Don’t hear one. Don’t even think one. Good luck with that. 🙂

Words. Some silly. Some simple. Some pulchritudinous. Some serious. Some not. Some visual. Some abstract.

For writing to have influence, it has to be read. So authors use words in their marketing, too. To help others find writing that may interest them.

Love words. Read words. Enjoy words. Write words. Appreciate words. Learn words. Teach words. Respect words.

Words are mightier than the sword.

Words are more powerful than money.

Words can be used to form friendships.

Words can be used to ease tensions.

Words can incite rebellion.

Words can bring peace.

What can’t words do?

If you can experience it, you can express it with words.

Even if it can’t be done in reality, it can be done in words.

We live in a world that revolves around words.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Author Power

Mighty Author Pic

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in Richilieu, Or the Conspiracy)

Authors have power through their writing.

Writers are creators. They can create new worlds, new people, new creatures, new ideas. Some aspire to create better worlds. Diversions from reality.

Authors share experiences. Readers can imagine traveling anywhere in the world (universe, even) without ever stepping out of their homes.

Writers can convey powerful emotions. Simply through words.

Wordsmiths make the letters themselves dance on a sheet of paper. Flow gracefully through action. Or. Stop. Suddenly. The reader enjoys the text without any idea as to how much care was put into the selection of each and every word.

Authors express themselves. And they express others. And others who don’t even exist, except in print and in the minds of those who have read their writing.

Writers disguise books that help people rebel against totalitarianism. Writers instigate revolutions. Writers spread fear through propaganda. Writers market freedom.

Poets sing. It may be beautiful, but very often it’s not. Very often, they sing suffering. And they sing it loud and clear. Yet it helps.

Authors plant seeds. Little ideas. Revolutionary ideas. Ideas that get people thinking. People with young and agile minds. People who may challenge the status quo. Rebels seeking a cause. Ideas that may grow with nutrients, time, water, and nurture.

The power of writers can be dangerous. Writers have much freedom to exercise, and coming with it is a great responsibility.

We may be weak in life, yet powerful in print.

It’s not the size of the pen that matters, nor the length of the words, nor how many words are written. It’s how the pen is wielded that really matters.

“Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” (Ernest Hemingway, in response to William Faulkner’s criticism, “He has never been known to use a word that might send his reader to the dictionary.”)

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volumes 1 and 2)